Forum has no simple answers to education testing

Will students be better educated and prepared for life beyond high school? That's what educators and parents hope will happen with the state's new testing requirements and the goals set by the federal "No Child Left Behind Act." Can school districts afford to meet the requirements, and are the standards fair for students?

Whether the requirements are realistic remains to be seen, a panel of education experts said this week during a South end forum.

On Wednesday, a panel of local educators along with Greg Hall, assistant superintendent from the state Office of Superintendent of Public Education, discussed the requirements found in the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL, and the No Child Left Behind Act.

Sponsored by the South Whidbey League of Women Voters, the panel included Hall, Rich Parker from the South Whidbey Board of Education, Bernie Mahar, principal of South Whidbey Primary School, Scott Mauk, former president of the teachers' union and a teacher at Bayview School, and Cathy Banks, a tutor, contract teacher and PTA member.

"Up until this year the WASL had no meaning to students. Now it is a graduation requirement for the class of 2008," Hall said.

"Because of that, more students are hitting the standard than ever before. We have growth, but it is slow," Hall said.

There is plenty of room for improvement, however.

"Last year 42 percent of 10th graders met the standard in reading and writing," he said. That means 68 percent are not meeting the standard.

For those students who don't make it the first time, there will be opportunities for remedial support before they retake the test, Hall told a group of 70 people gathered for the forum.

The cost of those retakes and other remediation efforts will be paid for by the school district.

Bob Brown, superintendent of South Whidbey School District, said the cost of providing remediation and up to five test retakes "is going to be a horrible problem."

"This district is suffering from declining enrollment and decreasing revenue from the state," Brown said.

Hall said state education superintendent Terry Bergeson is asking for $40 million to help districts meet that challenge.

But Hall conceded it won't be enough.

The class of 2008 will be required to reach proficiency in reading, writing and math on the WASL, complete a culminating project and complete a "high school and beyond" plan.

The WASL is the state's way of assessing of student progress.

Banks, during the panel discussion, said she favors assessment tests. But she questions whether it is fair to tie a student's diploma to the test.

"I am for testing assessments. But when you are talking about not giving a student a diploma, the stakes are very high," Banks said.

While the WASL tracks student progress, No Child Left Behind measures both the school district's and its students' progress.

"The No Child Left Behind is a system of accountability for districts," Hall said. "But it came down with a hammer."

"I think it is well-intended, but I think there are some excessive testing requirements. We are continually working with the feds to massage the areas we don't like," Hall said.

By 2014, NCLB requires that 100 percent of the state's students meet standards in reading, writing and math. Hall told the assembled crowd of teachers, parents and grandparents that the state office of education is looking at options for alternative ways to measure student achievement, along with the WASL.

"But nothing has yet been approved," he said.

Along with the requirements WASL puts on students, teachers struggle to meet obligations put on their plate by No Child Left Behind.

"Teaching in 2005 is a lot like drinking water from a fire hose. The state and feds are pouring on the mandates so fast it makes our jobs almost impossible," said teacher Scott Mauk.

Mauk said money for teacher training stopped in 2000. Education and special education are not fully funded, and that leaves the district short of money for adequate teacher training.

Banks, who is a math tutor for several South Whidbey High School students, added that No Child Left Behind is based on punishment. School districts that don't meet the federal requirements face consequences and are identified for corrective action.

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